Face Transplant Patient Connie Culp Undergoes Final Procedure, Learns to Smile Again

Photo: Face Transplant Patient Connie Culp Undergoes Final Procedure, Learns to Smile Again: After 6-Year Ordeal, Connie Culp Talks to Diane Sawyer, Prepares to Head Home
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For the first time since her face was destroyed by a shotgun blast in 2004, Connie Culp can now walk down the street and smile.

The recipient of the first-ever face transplant in the United States, Culp underwent her final facial surgery in mid-July, the last of nearly 30 procedures that have rebuilt her damaged skull and given her the ability to face the world again.

Culp, the 47-year-old mother and grandmother, will soon leave the Cleveland Clinic which has been a second home to her since her transplant surgery on Dec. 10, 2008. Just two face transplants have been performed in the U.S. and only 12 worldwide.

See Connie Culp's remarkable progress tonight in an exclusive interview with Diane Sawyer on "ABC World News."

"You said to me that you wanted to be able to walk around and not have anyone look at you," said Sawyer, who first interviewed Culp in May 2009. "And you told us about a child -- a little girl who had said to her mom, 'Monster, mommy.' Happen anymore?"

"Not anymore. Nobody pays any attention to me," said Culp. "Just another person on the street."

Her most recent procedure was similar to a facelift, though it was far more complex than any cosmetic surgery procedure. A team of 5 surgeons worked for four hours at the Cleveland Clinic, tightening Culp's face and removing the extra flaps of skin that hung from her cheeks and chin after the transplant surgery.

The donor's family still wants to remain anonymous, so all Connie knows is that her transplant came from a woman, roughly her age.

Nerves Regrow, Allowing Culp to Smile

Since her 2008 procedure, Culp has made remarkable progress. Her tracheotomy tube has been removed, and she's now breathing on her own. Her facial nerves have regrown, allowing her to speak more clearly, eat steak, and even smile.

"I have to say, I just can't get over how beautiful it is," Sawyer said.

"They did a good job, didn't they?" Culp answered with a grin. "You know, I think they made me look somewhat like ( I ) used to before. Because I had the high cheekbones."

Feeling Returns to Connie Culp's Face

A year ago, Culp couldn't feel a tear trickling down her face, but now the sensation has returned. Culp said she can feel her face prickling as the nerves regrow at a rate of one inch per month.

"I massage it every day and massage the scars, cause that will make it go down," Culp said.

"It's just still puffy cause I have that second gland in there," she said gesturing to her jawline. "It'll go down eventually."

Her doctors have shared in Culp's joy as she's made an astounding recovery.

"This is amazing both technically, surgically, but also philosophically. The face of someone else is being adopted and accepted by the face of the recipient," said Dr. Maria Siemionow, the Cleveland Clinic surgeon who lead the team that performed Culp's transplant surgery. "You can see a live person who is happy her life is back."

Concern Over Transplant Rejection

The greatest danger Culp faces now is a rejection of her transplant. Two face transplant recipients died after rejections, and Culp has now had two scares, including one in the last year.

"My face turned red," Culp recalled. "I can't let that happen to me again. You can feel it. And you know when you're going to get sick. It's almost like a cold, so I have to watch."

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